Russ Moore writes on the Christian's interaction with pop-culture in the newest issue of Southern Seminary's magazine, The Tie. In the article, Pop Christianity and Pop Culture on Mars Hill, Moore argues that the church needs to do more thinking in the area of cultural engagement. I agree with him, and think Dr. Mohler made an excellent point on this topic at the TFGT Conference. I still hope to pick up on his idea later this week. Moore attempts to explain common, evangelical cultural engagement by reducing it to two different kinds of Christians; Off Brand Evangelicals and South Park Evangelicals. The Off Brand Evangelicals are cultural imitators and exploiters. This group copies the culture in order to edify the church and make money off it. If you like Boy bands, but don't want to hear lyrics about sex with minors, then try the newest Christian boy band. NStep - or whatever. All the cheese, half the talent, and nothing sinful in the content. You get the idea. He spends very little time here, and wants to focus on a different target.
The South Park Evangelicals are those who "up turn their noses at Christian pop culture and bask in whatever Hollywood and Manhattan churn out, looking for 'signs of redemption' therein. Young evangelicals are able to read the weblogs of virtually unemployable but awfully hip evangelicals who can discuss the 'redemptive value' of 'Million Dollar Baby.'" Yeah, Moore comes out with both guns blazing - and hitting little.
Of course there are some who fall into this category, but those I know who actually work at engaging Hollywood, or pop culture in general, cannot stomach most of what Hollywood churns out. The fact is most of the movies released in a given month are little more than pre-fab eye candy.
Often pop culture is further compared to the missiological contextualization Christians attempt when working with other cultures internationally. It is, therefore, of little value to criticize pop culture — such is "fundamentalist" and passé. "Preaching against culture is like preaching against someone’s house," one Southern Baptist church planting guru said [Ed Stetzer]. "It’s just where they live." Contrasting the messages of pop culture with the messages of a Christian world-and-life view is often derided by these evangelicals as the rhetoric of "culture scolds" rather than that of evangelists.
Cultural engagers (at least those I know) are looking for story, ideas, truth, error, lies, hopes, experiences and values in art - even film. They engage culture while being in the world, but not of it, drawing participants' attention to the truth either reflected in or in contrast with the art. The idea that they are against contrasting the biblical "world-and-life view" with pop-culture is false. On this issue of scolding culture, versus speaking to it redemptively (which includes the proclamation of law and Gospel) I think Moore and others may be speaking past one another. That is for another post.
Moore has some good things to say in the article. For example, see page five in the magazine, the top three paragraphs. Good stuff, yet I often have a different application of such principles.
For example, in the article Moore seems to say that Million Dollar Baby does not have redemptive value, but I would say the interaction with the film can be redemptive. I have to think he would agree, even though I think he misunderstands the film. And this is worth mentioning. Eastwood seems to gravitate to stories that lack redemption. Things do not always work out in the end. People do not always do the right thing, or even learn from their mistakes. And in Eastwood's movies, I am not convinced his point is to push an agenda of moral nihilism. The absence of redemption in his films is itself the place to bring the Gospel to bear; to show what the Gospel says to that smaller story.
Moore sees a film like MDB as a story that "loves death." Such an assessment misses the point of the story altogether. The story centers on a religious man who loves his friend and is conflicted about a moral choice. If he listens to his priest, and keeps his friend alive, he believes he is sinning against her. If he does not listen to his priest, he believes he sins against God. In the end, he makes a choice without the knowledge of the Gospel - death, and it not only ends Maggie's life, but his life as well. He is ruined by his action and does not seem to know if he made the right choice. The movie is not extolling death, nor ambivalence. It tells a tragic story pivoting on complicated choices (at least for most Americans who find themselves there). For more of my thoughts on the film read here - though I fear I am one of those "virtually unemployable" hip bloggers Moore refers to. Whatayagonnado?
Let's try this from another angle. Moore enjoyed the recent Johnny Cash tribute film, Walk the Line. I could argue that the film - the story people saw on screen - told us of a man who lusted after another woman, was unfaithful to his spouse, and destroyed a family. He found himself miserable, not because of his sin, but because he couldn't have what he wanted. Oh - until he got what he wanted. Once he got the girl, all was well. Should I say the message of the film was a love of adultery? Is it a gospel of self-fulfillment? Is it an advertisement for the Institute for the Advancement of Marital Infidelity? No, that would be the wrong way to engage a film that tells a story without real redemption.
But this is not about Eastwood's fictional characters or Johnny Cash, it is about the church engaging the culture God has placed us in. Moore is right - we all have to be more thoughtful as we engage culture. I know I do, and I believe he does as well. But his caricatures of others who are trying to do what he asks are generally, not totally, unfair and unhelpful.
As a pastor, I do not want the people at our church mindlessly taking in pop-culture. I do not believe our engagement with art and entertainment should be passive. I expect God's people to be careful, thoughtful, and redemptive in this area. We must do more than superficially save a story with weak spiritual analogies, but we must also do better than pointing out what's wrong in a story.